Fairly or unfairly, short stories set in the domestic sphere of the American 20th Century tend to live in the shade of the two famous white Johns — Updike and Cheever. Those two men have become synonymous with midcentury ennui of the upper middle class, a style which has been parodied and mocked and prized apart with postmodern angst and fastidiously replicated by sincere young writers, even to this day, in mainstream literary journals.
I confess to thinking of the Johns as I read the linked stories in Hola and Goodbye, the newest book by Seattle author Donna Miscolta. I imagined the protagonists of an Updike story gently sniffing his disgust when one of the Mexican immigrants in Miscolta’s stories get too close to him on public transit, or clutching her purse closer to her side when she accidentally finds herself driving through their neighborhoods on the poorer side of town. (Before we get too far into the review, for the sake of full disclosure it must be said that Miscolta has written for The Seattle Review of Books, and taken a book reviewing class SRoB’s founders taught at Hugo House.)
Miscolta’s latest book spans generations — from the 1920s to the modern day — and it documents experiences that never found representation in the works of Cheever. Hola begins with Lupita arriving in America and trying her best to assimilate: “Her tongue seemed incapable of forming the sounds of English, her mind confused by its structure, her heart despairing of the effort.” Lupita’s tenacity, her insistence on making her way in America, is the inciting incident. Hola skips forward in time over fifteen stories, documenting the lives of Lupita’s children and grandchildren and friends and community — all these people who never would have existed or known each other had she not found the will to leave Mexico and make a better life for herself. it’s a universe that Donald Trump’s deplorables (and the Johns) have never bothered to understand.
Most of the stories center around women. They go on dates and get married. They hear Walter Cronkite use the word “turbulent” to describe the times on the evening news, and they try to emulate him to seem more smart and American, but they gloriously, mistakenly interpret the word as “troubulent,” which makes even more sense than Cronkite’s phrasing. They have children. They fail to understand their children, and their children fail to understand them.
They go to see West Side Story in theaters — finally, they think, a portrayal of their lives! — and they’re horrified “by the sight and sound of Natalie Wood opening her mouth in a preposterous imitation of a Puerto Rican’s English.” But they still want to sing and dance their favorite routines from the film in the movie theater parking lot because, troubling issues aside, they still feel ennobled on some level that their experiences have been acknowledged in some way. The men in Hola are almost always surrounded by a buffer zone. They are distant from the women: they get close enough to pitch woo, but then, objective attained, they’re surly and mysterious. Sometimes they just disappear.
Though the book does have a single, graceful arc, readers should be advised that Hola is at its core a short story collection, and it should be read as such. This means it might not withstand the relentless page-turning that novels demand. The rhythms of the stories are a little bit too similar — many of them share a narrative structure and too many of them end on pensive climactic moments that might seem too familiar if you don’t provide yourself a little bit of time in between readings.
But that’s a problem with form, not with content. If you enjoy the stories as their own little self-contained objects — like pearls on a string — you’ll better appreciate Miscolta’s attentive gift for craft. This paragraph on its own could be a perfect little Lydia Davis-style short short story. It’s a world that draws you effortlessly into its orbit:
My pilgrimage from Seattle has followed the roller coaster precipices of the Pacific Coast Highway down to its trendy beach communities where the smell of coconut oil settles like fog. Because a pilgrimage should be arduous, I stop in Kimball Park to visit my mother. I ask, “How are you?” and she answers, “Life is a bowl of spaghetti—.” I wait for the rest, for the punch line, the part about the meatball. But I realize she has finished her sentence. There is no meatball for my mother.
Hola could not be published at a more appropriate season in a more appropriate year. We have seen 2016 burnt down by people who aspire to Make America Great Again, which is a rude and not at all convincing code for aspiration for the whiteness of 1950s suburbia — Updike country. Miscolta is telling the stories that those bigots are wilfully trying to erase from the American experience. Her graceful aptitude for empathy and observation is a welcome reminder that the monsters will never win — America is better for that.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant